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Boeing Battery Breakdown: No End in Sight

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It won’t be a matter of days. It might take weeks. It may even be months before anybody knows the real cause of the lithium-ion battery problems in Boeing’s (NYSE: BA) 787 Dreamliner.

Investigators in Japan reported that circuit boards used to control and monitor the performance of the battery units in an All Nippon Airways Dreamliner that made an emergency landing last week were charred and may not offer any clues.

This latest setback, involving these relatively inexpensive circuit boards, may be keeping $10 billion worth of Boeing’s Dreamliners grounded, according to a Reuters report.

Puzzling to officials is the fact that the battery’s cells became volatile even though overall voltage was steady and did not exceed capacity. The Dreamliner’s black box flight-data recorder doesn’t record data that would help solve this riddle.

There are 50 Dreamliners in service. All of them grounded while officials continue their investigation.

The 787 has two lithium-ion batteries, each about twice the size of a car battery, but weighing less and providing more power. The use of these batteries is part of long-range plans on Boeing’s part to incorporate hybrid power systems in aircraft like those used by automakers.

National Transportation Safety Board chair, Deborah Hersman, made it clear that investigation into a separate Dreamliner incident in Boston on January 7, revealed a series of symptoms in the battery, but not the underlying cause of the problem.

Experts in the aerospace industry see Hersman's comments as a clear signal that this is no longer just a teething issue for the new plane.

Questions are now raised about the financial impact on Boeing, which is still running its Dreamliner assembly lines.

Meanwhile, Boeing has said these batteries are difficult to extinguish once they catch fire. As a result, the plane is designed to contain fires while they burn themselves out.

Hersman, confirmed that there is neither a fire suppression system in the area where the battery burned, nor any way to access it in-flight.

According to NDTV, Hersman, when asked by reporters if this constituted a design flaw, said, "We'll certainly be looking at the design and we'll be looking at the certification standards to determine if they were robust enough."

In a CNBC interview on Thursday, Michael Leon, a former employee of Secureaplane Technologies said that in his tests, he found that too much heat can cause the batteries to explode. Secureaplane manufactures the charging system for the lithium-ion batteries in the Dreamliner.

Leon was fired in 2007 for repeated misconduct but he claims it was in retaliation for voicing concerns about the batteries. He later sued the company but lost.  He told the story of what appeared to be a random explosion of one of the batteries he was testing while still employed with Secureaplane. Reuters reports that Leon said that Secureaplane was rushing to ship chargers that didn’t conform to specifications. The NTSB is reportedly looking into Leon’s claims.

Boeing shares are down 0.5 percent in early trading Friday.

Posted-In: Boeing Deborah Hersman NTSB SecuraplaneNews Events Best of Benzinga

 

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